Ethnocentrism means preferencing an individual’s culture over the cultures of any other group. The term first began to be used in the early 20th century, and remains important in cultural anthropology studies. Many argue that the concept can be more broadly applied to the attitudes of most people, since the majority like and prefer their culture over any other, and in so doing, they tend to downgrade the value and relevance of other cultures, or of other ways of doing things. The term can also refer to the tension that may exist in a society that has several discrete cultural groups or ethnicities.
In cultural anthropology, one of the reasons understanding ethnocentrism became so important is because the anthropologist could not be a skilled observer if he or she constantly applied his or her own cultural standards to other societies. This led to what is considered the opposite term, cultural relativism. Impartiality in reporting on how other groups “do things” was strongly needed to scientifically describe those groups. It doesn’t take much reading into history to find the descriptions of people coming into contact with other cultures for the first time to understand how deeply ingrained the preference for a person's own culture has been in the past and, arguably, continues to be.
Accounts of journeys to the “New World,” which wasn’t at all new to the people who already lived there, are peppered with descriptions of “savages.” Despite the great cultural accomplishments of many of the tribes encountered, Europeans typically saw such groups as non-Christians, who didn’t speak their languages. They were less than full persons, just as most Africans were less than white people. From an ethnocentric point of view, it was therefore far easier to kill people in the thousands or to begin the slave trade.
Historical examples of ethnocentrism are often given as how people wrongly thought in the past. There is plenty of evidence that people today are quite invested in the superiority of their cultures. Efforts to bring advancements to other parts of the world may be well-meaning, but may not be culturally necessary when viewed through the eyes of another culture. One example of this has been the US attempt to “bring democracy” to the rest of the world, which immediately shows US preference that democracy can be the only acceptable or is the best form of government. The US is not basing this on fact, however, and is instead basing such decisions on long held cultural opinions about democracy.
Even the average person is guilty of this practice from time to time, and it’s hard not to be. Most people have looked at other people of a different ethnicity or cultural background and questioned: “How can they wear that?” or “How can they listen to that?” or “How can they live like that?” From personal cultural standards, the behavior of someone else who comes from a different culture may indeed seem strange. It’s likely the person of a different background has the same questions about others.
Awareness that differences are to be expected, and that differences alone don’t equate to “not as good as,” is a first step toward avoiding ethnocentrism. That being said, it may be virtually impossible to never judge another culture by home culture standards. A constant quest toward cultural relativism is admirable, but it’s very hard to accomplish true relativism or live with a perpetually open mind.